The 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien taught us that in space no one can hear you scream — but Sega’s last Alien game had fans screaming for all the wrong reasons.
2013’s Alien: Colonial Marines was supposed to be a canonical sequel to the franchise, but it suffered a notoriously troubled development cycle and was widely panned as a buggy military shooter that couldn’t even get the series’ continuity right. Sega is starting over with a new developer on Alien: Isolation, a bold reboot that is attempting to deliver “the Alien game we would like to play,” according to Creative Assembly’s creative lead Alistair Hope.
Isolation takes its inspiration not from James Cameron’s more bombastic and trigger-happy Aliens, but from Ridley Scott’s quieter, more terrifying original. With series such as Resident Evil and Dead Space devolving into action-packed shooters, Isolation seeks to bring horror back to the survival horror genre. Set 15 years after the first film, the game puts players in the role of Amanda Ripley, on a dangerous mission to recover the black box flight recorder from the Nostromo and discover what happened to her mother, Alien heroine Ellen Ripley. Not surprisingly, things go awry, and Amanda soon finds herself being hunted by one extremely xenophobic Xenomorph.
Rather than throwing a barrage of aliens and face huggers at the player, Creative Assembly is attempting to recreate the sense of intelligence and power that Alien’s single Xenomorph possessed. They don’t want it to be just any alien after you — it’s the alien, and it’s more than capable of hunting and killing you at any moment. Armed only with a motion tracker and a wrench, Amanda can’t possibly fight off the alien — which can’t be killed — nor is she quick enough to outrun it. That means your only hope for survival is to outwit, outlast, and outplay the enemy.
I got to play a roughly half-hour demo of the PlayStation 4 version, which takes place on Sevastopol, a (mostly) abandoned trading station drifting on the outer reaches of space. The game immediately impresses with its dramatic lighting effects and immersive sound and atmosphere. Hope stressed the game’s 70s-inspired “lo-fi sci-fi” aesthetic (think boxy CRT screens rather than sleek LCD displays), finding inspiration in Alien, obviously, but also its forebears 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. It’s a stark contrast to the gleaming future presented in games like Mass Effect.
The game’s primary tool (in the demo, at least) is the motion tracker, a green monotone display that points you to your next objective and also shows you the alien’s general position relative to yours. But using the device presents an interesting mix of risk and reward, as raising the tracker fills up part of your screen and blurs the background behind it, obscuring your view of the surroundings. Seeing the alien blip your radar for the first time is a heart-stopping experience, as you know it’s somewhere nearby but you can’t yet see it. If the Xenomorph spots you, there’s a good chance you’re dead, unless you can manage to leave its line of sight and hide long enough for it to lose your trail. The alien’s artificial intelligence isn’t pattern-based. Instead, it’s dynamic, and will constantly respond to your actions. At one point, after spotting the alien, I crouched past and moved into a closet, thinking it couldn’t see me. And while it didn’t actually see me, it did notice that the large metal door was moving. The alien unleashed a primal scream, darted over, and ripped open the door, giving me a final closeup glance of its retractable inner maw before the screen faded to black.
Unfortunately, developers and PR folks can hear you scream in a pitch-black hotel room in midtown Manhattan. Or at least they can hear you laugh nervously to cover up your terror. It’s a tense, exhilarating experience, and based on my time with the polished demo, this has the potential to be the game that series fans have always wanted — making up for last year’s Colonial Marines and perhaps even the big-screen quasi-prequel misfire Prometheus. Now that would be something to scream about.
Alien: Isolation releases October 7 for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.